US affirms support for Israel as calls mount for Gaza ceasefire

AFP , Monday 18 Dec 2023

The United States vowed Monday it would continue to arm Israel in its campaign against Hamas, even as it called for more humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the devastated Gaza Strip.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin
US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin speaks during a joint press conference with Israel s defence minister, in Tel Aviv. AFP


Fighting raged on in the third month of the bloodiest ever Gaza war, with the Palestinian health ministry reporting another 110 people killed in strikes on the Jabalia camp near Gaza City.

The UN Security Council in New York was set to vote later Monday on another call for a ceasefire in the besieged territory, after previous bids were vetoed by Israel's key ally the US.

Visiting Israel, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said: "We must get more humanitarian assistance in to the nearly two million displaced people in Gaza and we must distribute that aid better."

But he confirmed Washington was "Israel's greatest friend" and would continue to provide "critical munitions, tactical vehicles and air defence systems".

He added that his visit did not aim to "dictate timelines or terms" for the war.

Austin is touring the Middle East as concerns grow over the war's spread around the region, with Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen attacking international shipping in the Red Sea in solidarity with the people in Gaza.

The attacks have disrupted global trade, driving up oil prices, with energy giant BP among the latest major firms to stop using the vital route that leads to the Suez Canal.

"In the Red Sea, we're leading a multinational maritime taskforce to uphold the bedrock principle of freedom of navigation," Austin said, warning Iran to stop supporting the Houthi attacks.

The war in Gaza began when Hamas launched Al-Aqsa Flood Operation on October 7, killing around 1,140 people in Israel, and capturing 250, according to Israeli officials.

Since then, Israel bombardment of the Gaza Strip that reduced large parts of the north of the territory to rubble, has killed at least 19,453 people, 70 % of them are women and children, with around 52,286 people wounded, according to the Palestinian health ministry figuers.

'Starvation as method' 

International alarm has mounted over the plight of 2.4 million Gaza residents enduring daily bombardment, food and water shortages and mass displacement.

Human Rights Watch charged that Israel "is using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare".

"Israeli forces are deliberately blocking the delivery of water, food and fuel, while wilfully impeding humanitarian assistance, apparently razing agricultural areas," the New York-based NGO said.

Israel responded that HRW was an "anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli organisation".

"Human Rights Watch... did not condemn the attack on Israeli citizens and the offensive of October 7 and has no moral basis to talk about what's going on in Gaza," a foreign ministry spokesman told AFP.

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, earlier said he "would not be surprised if people start dying of hunger, or a combination of hunger, disease, weak immunity".

Israel has approved aid deliveries into Gaza via its Kerem Shalom crossing, aside from the Rafah crossing with Egypt, and dozens of trucks entered through Kerem Shalom on Monday, an AFP journalist said.

At the Rafah crossing, many families gathered in the hopes of finally being allowed across to safety.

"We've been here for about a month," said Safa Fathi Hamad. "We are going to die, food is very limited and we have no protection."

'Fight until the end' 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday again vowed Israel would destroy Hamas, and free the captives.

The army has reported 129 deaths in Gaza since it launched ground operations in late October.

Israel has faced mounting global pressure to either slow, suspend or stop hostilities.

That includes families of the remaining 129 captives believed held in Gaza, whose anger and fear intensified after Israeli forces mistakenly shot dead three captives who had escaped their captors.

The trio waved white flags and used food leftovers to write a Hebrew-language message on a white sheet before they were shot, reports said.

Army chief of staff Herzi Halevi, in a message to troops, stressed that if enemy fighters "lay down their arms and raise their hands, we capture them, we don't shoot them".

Qatar, which helped mediate a week-long truce and captive-prisoner exchange last month, has said there are "ongoing diplomatic efforts to renew the humanitarian pause".

US news platform Axios on Monday reported that Mossad chief David Barnea, CIA director Bill Burns and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met in Warsaw.

As the war rages on, special concern has focused on hospitals, most of which no longer function, and several of which have been the scenes of major fighting.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the UN agency was "appalled by the effective destruction" of northern Gaza's Kamal Adwan hospital.

Outside the hospital, the muddy ground scarred by tank and bulldozer tracks, Abu Mohammed stood crying as he searched for his son.

"I don't know how I will find him," he said, pointing to the debris.

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